Self-help groups and support groups have played an important role in social work and community development, especially in areas of mental health, physical health, addictions and dealing with particular life events and circumstances. Where there is a lack of suitable formal support groups – or a reluctance to attend one of those groups for a range of reasons – pretty much any community group can take on the functions of exchanging information and personal stories, creating a sense of belonging and forming friendships, supporting one another, and sustaining hope. In farming communities formal support groups are often not available, are not easily accessible, or people are reluctant to attend because of the lack of anonymity and fear of being stigmatised or subject of gossip.
The Lifetime Ewe Management Course is an example of such a group. This training program offered by the Rural Industries Skill Training (RIST) agricultural college runs over 12 months and is focused on supporting primary producers to develop a successful and productive animal production system by linking to the critical stages in ewes’ reproductive cycle.
With a group of farmers, our family has participated in the course for the past two years.
In essence the lifetime wool management system includes: improved ewe health and survival; increased wool production and tensile strength of wool; improved ewe reproduction; increased lamb survival; increased progeny fleece weight and fibre diameter; and more effective pasture. The objective of the program was to give farmers a lifetime optimum strategy in managing ewes year in and year out to deliver efficient feed allocation, limit production losses and ensure happy healthy ewes.
Farmers are concerned about what they produce, how their practice impacts on the soil, understanding the complexity of managing the landscape they operate within, markets, changes in consumer requirements, and the sustainability of their farming practice.
Embracing science and technology can assist and can place a farmer at the cutting edge of, in our case, wool/fat lamb production.
The course was significant in that it was about more than just poring over individual farming sheets, market and climate predictions, seed planting, joining times, health and safety requirements, and investing in new markets both within our borders and beyond. The real value was in farmers coming together across diverse farming backgrounds, ages and gender. It was in new and old friendships, strengthening the value of talking openly about the stressors of farming, and finding ways around complex problems. As one participant said:
“I felt like there was no hope for us, no bloody hope at all but the group has given us not only hope but we can tackle the crap we have been going through.”
The group is a place where recipes were shared, where we celebrated the births of grandchildren, mourned the death of close friends, and for some it was about ensuring the ‘Black Dog’ of depression was kept in check.
Which leads me to encouraging community services to engage with farming communities, in particular with these groups which,in many instances, are unrecognised for the mental health support they provide.
Alison Fairleigh, 2013 Queensland Rural Woman of the Year, sums it beautifully:
“I’m a realist and not an idealist. I know how difficult it is to accept the symptoms as a personal illness rather than a personal weakness, but we shouldn’t be ashamed, as it’s not something you choose. Sometimes you may need to take it an hour or a minute at a time, but just keep going. To take action and control of your life again is a very empowering thing.”
The group we are part of has given our family incredible support, friendships and deeper appreciation that our group is so much more than total Lifetime Ewe Management.
This is an edited version of an article first published in Rural Social Work Connect, Australian Association of Social Workers Victorian Branch Newsletter, April 2014